A new poll and study from The Australia Institute has found most Australians want political advertising on social media to be subject to more regulation, with 60% supporting an outright ban.
Some have pointed to fake or misleading content as a contributing factor in recent Australian elections – but there are questions as to whether regulating political ads will have much of an effect.
The debate follows recent clashes between social media companies over the policy governing political advertising on their platforms.
As we hurtle closer and closer to the US election in 2020, there's no surprise as to why there's increasing debate around the thorny issue of political advertising on social media. But Australians are thinking about it too – and they're perhaps even more concerned than their American counterparts.
A new study from progressive think tank The Australia Institute has found a majority of Australians support tighter regulation of political advertising on social media, with 73% supporting a requirement that political advertising be truthful, and 60% supporting an outright ban.
The poll, conducted by Essential Research on behalf of The Australia Institute, also found that two thirds of Australians support measures to prevent 'micro-targeting' political messages to particular groups of voters.
When it came to the requirement for truth in political advertising on social media, there was majority support across all voting intentions, with Coalition and Greens voters most likely to support such a requirement.
The report argues a lack of a solid regulatory framework and the preponderance of so-called 'dark ads' – hyper-targeted social media ads viewable only by their narrow audiences – has created a system which lacks accountability and may have a distortionary effect on the democratic process.
'Fake news' on social media is often raised as a problem in the 2019 Australian election – but paid ads weren't always the main factor
In its official election postmortem, the Australian Labor Party dedicated significant space to claims which circulated on social media suggesting the party would reintroduce inheritance tax – or a 'death tax'. By Labor's account, they never had a policy which could accurately be described as a death tax.
"The 2019 election marked the arrival of online disinformation as a decisive factor in Australia’s democratic processes," the report read.
"The speed with which the “death tax” deception spread on Facebook and Messenger, the rebound effect of Labor’s attempted rebuttals, and the ease with which the Liberal Party took advantage of and fed that disinformation, are warning signs for everyone in the Australian political system."
But efforts to regulate paid political ads wouldn't have done much in this case, seeing as the 'death tax' allegation often spread organically through Facebook groups and Messenger. A report by The Guardian after the election found many posts about the death tax were shared by "fringe Facebook pages and personal accounts."
On the flip side of the coin, Labor also faced scrutiny during the 2016 election for its 'Mediscare' campaign, with some alleging they misled voters by suggesting the Coalition intended to privatise Medicare.
The Australian government has turned its steely gaze on the conduct of social media giants more intensely in recent months – though not specifically in the arena of political advertising.
Last week, Attorney-General Christian Porter flagged his intention to make companies like Facebook and Twitter liable for defamatory content published by their users, reducing what he calls a "completely uneven" balance between the responsibilities of platforms and the responsibilities of individual publishers.
Political ads have recently become a battleground for social media platforms
Much of the discussion about paid political ads on social media recently is largely a result of Facebook's commitment to continue running them – and its refusal to fact check the claims made.
In an incendiary address to the Anti-Defamation League last week, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen described Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history" over its policy on political ads.
"If you pay them, Facebook will run any 'political' ad you want, even if it's a lie," he said.
For its part, Facebook has been largely unrepentant about its role.
“We don’t fact-check political ads,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a speech at Georgetown University in mid-October, setting off a firestorm of criticism.
“We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.”
Facebook insists political advertising isn't a significant revenue driver – less than 1% of the company total, according to COO Sheryl Sandberg – and that its decision not to fact check is rooted in a commitment to the democratic process.
“In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news," Zuckerberg said in Facebook's Q3 conference call.
"And although I’ve considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I’ve thought we should continue."
The latter comment followed Twitter's announcement in late October that it would ban political advertising outright, in an obvious jab at Facebook.
“This isn’t about free expression," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted at the time. "This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle."
Since the initial announcement, Twitter has further clarified its new policy, which includes some exemptions for news publishers and certain “cause-based” ads. Any ads mentioning political candidates, however, are banned.
Last week, Google stuck its head into the debate by announcing it was changing its own political advertising policy by limiting advertisers from targeting users based on their political leanings.
Regardless of how it proceeds, it seems as if Australians aren't particularly keen on the current state of affairs.